Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Deep Blue Funk

I've known for years that when I start slogging through mental goo, mud, sludge, whatever, I need poems, my own and others. But somehow, negative thinking blocks that knowledge. For days now, I've gone about my business--read busyness--but under all the action is mental inaction. I'm clearing up the to-do list, slowly, and spending too much time with TV and computer solitaire. Neither one entertains me. They just fill the minutes, sometimes hours, when I don't know what else to do. Books have not captured me, much, though I finished Memoirs of a Geisha and liked it. Breakfast with Buddha has not moved me, though people have recommended it, and in other times, in other frames of mind, I too might love this book. Not this week. I thought about fall, becoming obvious in the foliage and the return of ducks--noisy, busy, wonderful--to the pond. But this doesn't explain anything. I've seen plenty of foliage, heard hundreds of ducks, and never felt they were omens of anything but a natural turn of the wheel.

Finally, it came to me. I haven't written a poem in weeks, and that's not good for me. I need to go off by myself, as my friend Michael would say, and sit on a rock somewhere, let my mind wander like a half-grown child. Maybe something will swim to the surface and I'll get that frisson of imagination that means a poem is coming together in the depths. It will start with a phrase, an image, a tickle in the brain. The first draft will be messy and out of focus, but if I write it over and over, letting it take shape slowly, that moment will come--YES! This is a glimpse of the world I've never noticed before. It may not, as we are wont to say, make anything happen in the larger sense. No one listens to poets but other poets and a few blessed readers, but it will change something in me. I'm off to pack a lunch, fill the dog's busy ball with kibble, and find that all important rock. I'll let you know if it works.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Hero Worship

As I age and change, I am both more selective and more adventurous in what I read. Not too long ago, I set myself a goal to read the collected works of an impressive list of American women poets, beginning with Emily Dickinson. Well, I just finished poem #610 out of 1789, as well as much of the collection of letters she wrote to her beloved sister-in-law, Susan. And you know what? I'm tired of death and abstraction, of slanted truths and that coy, little-girl persona. Granted, when Emily hits her stride, she's great, but I'm not sure I can slog through the entire collection. I had the same attitude toward Eliot's collected poems. The ones I already knew through anthologies were stunning, still are. But I didn't make a lot of discoveries. R. W. Franklin's The Poems of Emily Dickinson--let's thank him for a masterful editing job--will sit on my poetry shelf as a reference and a reminder that all poems are not created equal. Sorry, Emily, I know you did us all a favor by breaking the mold, or scraping off the mold, of American poetry, and for that I do admire your work.

A more recent writer, Annie Dillard, still amazes me. I pulled down her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book that matters to me, to take an excerpt to a writing group. I wanted to display my idea of detailed writing that is more than a catalogue of the obvious, and her first paragraph (Are you taking notes?) is a marvel. So much so, that when I walked Duncan this morning I wished that I had her skill in noticing the world. I must admit Dickinson had that too; she saw snakes in the grass, the shapes of clouds, every daisy that ever grew, and every robin that lit in her yard. I sit here, day after day, without knowing what to call the trees in front of my eyes. I see the squirrels and rabbits, the geese and ducks. I hear the coyotes in the middle of the night singing around their dens, but I don't have the depth of vision that Dillard and Dickinson have. Maybe that's a thing I can change. I'll try; I promise.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Back to Work

Finally, I dug out the novel-in-progress, and reconnected with it. Between vacation (I don't write well or much at all away from home.) and reconnecting with my life, I've put off digging in and getting back to work. How nice to find that I had, indeed, finished the chapter I was working on and had only to print it out and tuck it into the notebook. Now I'm on chapter eight, with ten already done. Filling in nine will not necessarily be easy, but at least I'll be bridging from one known value to another. I heard an interview with Philip Roth on the radio recently, and he works a full day 6-7 days a week. And he's happy if he gets one page a day, knowing that some days he'll throw out the whole page. I'd jump into the duck pond if I had to throw out a whole day's work. Who am I, though, to judge Roth?

I felt guilty about my hit-or-miss work on this novel. I like the characters, like the surprises they offer me, and generally think that it will be a good read. But I can hear my inner critic saying, you are supposed to work on it every day. Now get your pen and get going. Well, you know, I think that critic can jump in the pond, duck weed and pond scum and all that. Since Boot Camp in June, I've strung together 8-10 full chapters and worked out a tentative story line. That's about ninety days, and I'm at about 80 pages, so I'm not that far behind. I do plan to begin the work earlier in the morning because that is when I'm most energetic and focused. My daily journal may have to wait till the coffee break in the afternoon, but I'm more and more okay with keeping my own schedule, if I dare call it that. Letting my brain lie fallow for a couple of days or a couple of weeks lets things settle and repercolate. Plot problems that seemed impossible somehow work out. I am working, but at my own pace, not Roth's or any other famous writer. After all, it's my life and work. I'm responsible for doing it the best way I can.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Good Reads

Would you say that we should write what we like to read? If that is so, I'm in deep water and have forgotten how to swim. Lately, I've read Marge Piercy's Gone to Soldiers, a thick, detailed, at times horrifying account of WWII, beautifully researched and gripping. Then I read a short memoir by a park ranger who learned his ranger skills in Maine, Bear Dogs of Mt. Katahdin. Last night I finished Maeve Binchy's Evening Class, a character-driven web of how people in a community build and break down relationships. Trust Binchy to give us honorable characters and well-built plots. I love her habit of connecting one book to another; I feel like I know the landscape and the people. Next up in my stack is popcorn--Janet Evanovich's Fearless Fourteen. I definitely feel at home in Jersey with the familiar characters who change little from one adventure to the next. Humor and wild imagination drive this series about clumsy bail bondswoman, Stephanie Plum, with big hair, eye shadow, two sexy guys on her hands, and a supporting cast of wackos. I love these books like I love chocolate brownies.

So, you see my problem: I want the humor of Evanovich, the warmth of Binchy, the familiarity of that park ranger's setting, and the depth and wisdom of Piercy. That's a shopping list that could break my back or my bank account. The truth is, I can only write what I write, keeping one eye on my favorites, and the other on my characters, where they choose to live, love, die, fail, or succeed. It's hard work, and it's a grand game of chance. Just when I think, ah, I want to write a book like that one, another good read pops up, and I chase after another hero. Maybe I'll get a bead on my own books one of these days, maybe not. But what fun to fall in love with so many unique stories. When I get scared that we have too many books in the world, I think about the joy of variety, the pleasure of surprise and change, and I relax. Now, excuse me, I hear Stephanie starting her engine, hoping the car won't explode, though it always does. Later!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Home Safe

After three weeks away, I hardly know how or where to resume my usual work. I've traveled on planes, boats, trucks and cars, driven two horses and carriages, and ridden on two buses. My brain is still spinning, but I saw lots of people I wanted to see, not spending enough time with any of them, but at least back in touch with friends and family. Not all the news was good; there are illnesses and misfortunes, but mostly I had fun. A friend and I went to Nova Scotia to see the sights and search for ancestors. I was very excited to think that I had discovered, just before leaving for my trip, a Mi'kmaq ancestor, and poured over literature, visited heritage centers, bought a wonderful anthology of Mi'kmaq poetry and history, and imagined how life might have been for this woman who lived 400 years ago, married a man totally out of her culture and bore many children. I toted that book, The Mi'kmaq Anthology, all over the back roads around the Bay of Fundy, trying to see back into her view of that geography. It was hard to do; she wouldn't have had roads, motels, pubs, and TV. The best I could do was stand on the shore and pretend all this modernity was a mirage.

Back in the states, I went to the genealogy forums and learned--it was all a big mistake. Though many people have registered an "unknown Indian woman" in our pedigree, maternal DNA has disproved the idea. It's more than an idea, though. It's a longing. Every relative I had told of this possibility was honored, pleased, to find a possible link to a woman so different from who we are today. I'm still happy to have encountered the wise museum docent who married into the Mi'kmaq world, still happy to read the myths of Glooscap, a culture hero, and to learn about the trials of Indian children wrenched from families and punished for speaking their mother tongue. So this unknown woman, not a blood relative, has given me more than her DNA. She has given me a shift in perspective, an enlargement in my viewfinder, a picture of life and family that includes me anyway. Thanks to Rita Joe and Lesley Choyce for their book and for their courage in teaching us all, again, about diversity. Sometimes, family is what you make it.